Thursday, October 13, 2011

Debby Dahl Edwardson on Names, History, and Novel Structure

Last week I raced through Debby Edwardson’s novel, My Name is Not Easy, consuming it in one big gulp! Her writing is beautiful, touching and true to the hearts of her characters. Quite apart from the importance of this story, and how needed it is in the world, the book appears deceptively simple, then gets you in the jugular when you’re not expecting it.

And now we have the incredible news that My Name is Not Easy is a National Book Award finalist. Congratulations, Debby!

[Uma] As someone whose name many people "choke crackers" I'm fascinated by the issues raised by names and naming in your book. Talk about why names matter and how the claiming of a name can shape a person. How and why does this resonate for you?

[Debby] In order to explain why this issue resonates with me, I have to explain it from an Iñupiaq perspective because this is where I live and it’s where the book is rooted. In the Iñupiaq belief, a person’s name has a spirit of its own and that spirit travels from person to person such that when you name a child after someone—and you always do—you are essentially bringing the namesake back to life.  In this way, an Iñupiaq name implies an additional level of kinship, serving to extend one’s family ties. If I name my daughter after your grandmother, for example, she becomes your grandmother and you will even call her grandmother, sometimes, recognizing the kinship. From this perspective, naming is a very serious matter, so serious that I felt compelled to put a disclaimer in my first book, Blessing’s Bead, explaining, essentially, that there is no such thing as a fictional Iñupiaq name because all Iñupiaq names come with their own history and their own kinship. All the names I use in my books are either family names or invented names—because the use a person’s name is a very serious thing. You can’t just say, “Oh I like the sound of that name, I think I’ll use it.”

This is culturally specific, of course, but actually, that’s the point: names have a significance specific to specific groups of people. So when you’re speaking of a people who have been forced, throughout their schooling, to leave their cultures and their names at the schoolhouse door, and when the people in question, believe that a name has a spirit or soul attached to it, then the act reclaiming one’s name becomes both spiritual and revolutionary.
I love to watch the way growing numbers of young Inupiat are reasserting their right to their Iñupiaq names, by the way, and I suspect it’s a global movement. My oldest daughter’s husband is Tamil and they have never used their English names with each other. My granddaughter doesn’t have an English name—she has an Iñupiaq name and a Tamil name and nobody is worrying about how the world will react to this. The world will just have to adjust! That’s the new order—and it’s a very promising one, I think.

[Uma] I love that, Debby. Alaska and Tamilnadu, bound by names! Let’s talk about history. My Name is Not Easy spans the period from 1960 through 1964. What's the history that made you choose this time?

[Debby] The easy answer is that this book is based on a true story, the story of my husband’s experiences at a parochial boarding school in Alaska, and these are the years he was there. And of course I was a child of sixties, too, so it resonates with me. But the real answer, I think, is that this was an era of political awakening, nationwide, and My Name is Not Easy is essentially a political coming of age story. The students at Sacred Heart are coming of age in a situation that is difficult and painful in many respects but it’s also one that will prepare them to play a lead role in securing the future of their peoples.

As I said in my Author’s Note: “students similar to the students of Sacred Heart became leaders in their home communities—state legislators, city mayors, and tribal presidents. These people lobbied for change in Washington, D.C., and united their tribes to speak forcefully with one voice through the Alaska Federation of Natives, the organization that was instrumental in securing passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).”

I’m not writing about ANCSA (which returned 40 million acres of Alaskan land to Native ownership, paying a cash settlement of $900 billion for lands lost) and I am not writing the story of the young Alaskan Native leaders, all in their early twenties, who in 1968 successfully stood up to the most powerful political forces on the planet and beat them. But the truth is that all of the leaders who fought the land claims battle in Alaska were boarding school alumni and this is their story. If you focus in on it,  My Name is Not Easy is the story of a group of young people from diverse tribes who came together and created family. But if you pull the lens out a bit, you see a generation on the cusp of a political awakening that shook Alaska to its core.

[Uma] The era of boarding schools is such a painful one. Have you heard from people whose stories may find echoes here?  Why is it important for us to pass on the remembering of such wrongs to the next generation?

[Debby] Other than my husband and fellow Alaskan writer William L. Iååiagruk Hensley, who wrote a blurb for the book, I have not heard from the people whose experiences might find echoes in these stories. The book is on backorder right now, so most of them haven’t had a chance to read it. In a way, though, I think I’ve already answered why it’s important to remember this history. Willie—who incidentally was one of the leaders of the land claims movement —said it very well in his blurb, when he kindly referred to the book as “an excellent work of fiction with important truths to be remembered.”

Some of the truths, like the ones mentioned above, are empowering, but others are very painful. The boy at the end of the book who can understand and hear his language, clear as birdsong,  but will never again speak it, is my husband. And as I was writing this book, our daughter, Naÿinaaq, was making a documentary entitled Nipaa Iøitqusipta—The Voice of Our Spirit, which examines the decline of the Inupiaq language. It’s a very painful subject for my daughter’s generation. Taqnak Rexford, one of her peers, voiced it elequently on Facebook recently:
I am Iñupiaq, and I live most of this lifetime without my language and sometimes that pain becomes too much to carry. Most often I’m not even aware I carry that energy around in me, but sometimes it leaves me in deep, almost violent waves of tears. These are ancestral tears. I am absolutely positive it’s not just me crying, it’s all of my relatives who have passed away who are witnessing our younger generations' lives without their language. This is a collective and generational weeping.”
This younger generation has grown up understanding that they don’t have the language because their parents and grandparents were punished for using it—but in a very real sense, they don’t really understand what this means because they weren’t there and they haven’t felt, on a purely visceral level, what it means. Fiction can take them there and let them experience it and through experiencing it, they can understand and through understanding they can heal.... 

For non Native readers, these stories are important because they allow us to bear witness. We cannot change what happened and we cannot fix it but we can bear a portion of the pain and in doing so we strengthen our own humanity and increase our understanding of what it means to be human.

I know this from personal experience. As a child growing up in Minnesota, I lived in a community that had a sizable Jewish population. Because it was the story of my friends and classmates, the Holocaust became a shared story for me, one I internalized in ways that to this day affect me in profoundly. If I can effect that same experience for the readers of my book, I will have done my job as a writer.
[Uma] What were the challenges of writing in the shifting viewpoints you adopted for this book?

[Debby] I wrote this book as my creative thesis when I was a student in the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. I started it with a blank page on day one and when I was asked, at that time, to talk about how I planned to tell this story, I said, with absolutely no forethought, that I was going to tell it in multiple voices.

It was an obvious choice, of course. It’s a communal story—a multi-tribe story—so the need to tell it in multiple voices seemed almost a given. There are many indigenous tribes in this country with cultures that are in many ways very different from one another but one striking commonality is that indigenous peoples tend to put the needs of the community above the needs of the individual, thinking “we” more often than “I.” It’s interesting, though, that I started this telling as first person present tense moving back and forth from character to character—interesting, because this is hardly the equivalent of the indigenous “we” voice.  And it resulted in a first draft that was huge and rather shapeless.

After much groping and fumbling around in the dark, my final advisor—Marion Dane Bauer—suggested that I try telling it as linked stories. This gave me the freedom to play with it and allow it to become what it wanted to become—a novel told in stories, I guess. As soon as I let it out of its forced container, it seemed to develop in a fairly organic manner, moving from first person accounts in the beginning to multi-voice omniscient accounts, near the end. This seemed to fit. It was a long journey, but one which I thoroughly enjoyed.

[Uma] And one that has brought you well deserved recognition, Debby. Thank you so much for talking to me on Writing With A Broken Tusk.

2009 Cynsations interview with Debby Edwardson.


  1. Congratulations to Debby on being a National Book Award finalist. I have not yet read 'My Name is not Easy' but the whole value/importance of a name and how this is applied and lived in different cultures, fascinates me. I believe many Western cultures have lost this value and we can be quite thoughtless in naming our children. Even the phases of different nicknames have been important for me. I look forward to discovering more of the Iñupiaq culture when I get to read this multi-tribe story!

  2. Great Interview. Thanks for sharing Uma and Thanks so much Debby for sharing with us a part of your cultural inheritance. Congratulations on being a National Book Award Finalist. Im on my way to look up your book.

  3. Suma, I'm glad you enjoyed the interview. These are important conversations. Debby is a talented writer with everyday, familial access to the culture and places she writes of. This puts her in a very different position from most writers of culturally grounded narratives who were not born into the culture in question. There's much to be learned from this beautiful book.

  4. I loved this interview, too, and I can't wait to read Debby's book. Marion Dane Bauer (and all your other advisors, and indeed the whole VCFA community!) must be thrilled for you, Debby.

  5. Uma and Debbie, Thanks for a wonderful though-provoking interview. I have to speak more Hindi to my kids. And I absolutely have to get my hands on this book! Interesting: The main character of my historical(a real person) has the same name as my grandmother, although they lived centuries apart. Now I wonder which Leelavati was named for the other!